Local districts searching for ways to honor devastated senior athletes

James Neiss/staff photographerIn this April 18, 2019 file photo, Niagara Falls' Zachary Brydges slides into home for a run in the first inning of a baseball game against Lockport at the NFHS Athletic Complex.

No high school graduation, no prom, no club activities, no concerts, no plays, no large gathering of friends and no awards assembly honoring accomplishments it took a young lifetime to fulfill.

All gone in the blink of an eye.

But for many, near or at the top of that dreadful list of scholastic losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is the cancellation of an entire season of team sports. 

On Friday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the Empire State is officially closing all public schools for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. Moments later, Chris Watson, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association's director of communications, issued a statement that all NYS high school spring sporting events, practices, games and playoffs, are officially canceled.

“I'm deeply disappointed,” Grand Island's veteran athletics director Jon Roth said by phone. 

“Like a lot of people, I was still holding on to hope that we'd get a few games in or some type of round robin tournament for those poor seniors,” Roth said. “Now, it's going to be up to each individual school how they're going to honor their seniors. We're hoping that it's in some way, whether it's virtual or maybe plan something down the road.”

Watson said Friday's news eliminated all remaining hopes that student-athletes will be able to represent their schools in any way, athletics included, through the summer as well.

Roth and local coaches and league administrators including Niagara Frontier League executive director Patrick M. Burke all said they'll continue to deal with the pandemic issue head on, but added that for now, they're still planning on picking back up again in the fall.

“It's more sad than anything because you want to try to give the seniors something to make up for the fact that they've held on to hopes of donning that school uniform one more, but it's just not going to happen,” Burke said.

Barker's veteran track and cross country head coach, Paul DerSarkissian, said he and other local coaches are disappointed at Friday's news.

“I'm bummed for the kids. They're really suffering from a lack of structure and motivation right now,” DerSarkissian said.

“We can try to communicate with them through a video and phone messages, but we don't have the same influence as we would have if we were face-to-face. And some of these kids, the main reason they're in school is sports and activities.”

Wilson girls basketball coach Brian Baker said what's making everything tougher with this pandemic is how unprecedented it is.

“I feel tremendous sorrow for the seniors, first of all, to not be able to finish off their winter sports seasons and then to lose their spring seasons,” Baker said.

“Obviously, safety and health reasons are the main concerns, but it's still so hard for it to end this way for these kids,” Baker said. “The summer camp that (Wilson boys basketball coach) Brett Sippel and I put together will have to be put on the back burner for now also. The way Gov. Cuomo was sounding, we're going to need a regional entrance plan before the schools can reopen and we're hoping to get that at the end of this month.” 

Lockport's outdoor track and cross country head coach, Tim Willett, said Friday's announcement was shocking, even though almost everyone knew the news was coming. Track is the highest high school participation sport in the United States. Large schools like Lockport boast coed rosters on average of 120 athletes per year.

“I'm disappointed and the athletes are disappointed — especially when you think of those kids and teams who had a chance to make it to the state championships or those seniors who thought they had one more year,” Willett said, adding that discussions are already well underway regarding fall sports, with no changes having been made so far.

Meanwhile, Willett and other coaches and ADs said they're moving ahead and are currently in the process of scheduling practices and games for fall sports.

“We already know what our cross country schedule is next fall and we've already gone ahead and made plans for invitationals,” Willett said.

Added Burke: “We're already full steam ahead for fall sports. All our schedules are in peoples' hands and we're continuing to schedule non-league games and basically, we're going on as usual. We have to do that.” 

Roth couldn't agree more. 

“Spring is over and it's a shocking end, but now, hopefully, we can figure out some way of making it special for the seniors before they drop off the face of the earth in a sense,” Roth said. “I'm sure that all the superintendents and principals are busy right now trying to figure out a process for graduation and scholarship honors. There are so many things to talk about outside of athletics as well.” 

Watson's official statement by the NYSPHSAA on Friday follows:

“In accordance with Governor Cuomo’s announcement today that New York schools will be closed to in‐person learning for the remainder of the school year, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s 11 member Sections have cancelled all remaining spring sports. Sections 8 and 11 cancelled their spring regular seasons on April 21st. At present, 43 other state high school associations have cancelled their sports seasons in similar fashion according to media reports.

“This week NYSPHSAA President Paul Harrica will begin the process of selecting members to serve on an ad hoc committee to address and analyze the potential impact of COVID-19 on the fall 2020 interscholastic athletic season. The ad hoc committee will include school and district superintendents, principals, athletic directors, Section Executive Directors and NYSPHSAA’s Executive Director as well as potential representation from the NYS Education Department, NYS School Boards Association and the NYS Department of Health. The committee will convene to make recommendations if needed to NYSPHSAA’s 11 member Sections to assist with planning and coordination of high school athletic programs."

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